From the moment John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter were put together on the Wizards, there was an expectation the core could reach the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2017, they got within 15 minutes of reaching it. They were leading Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals with under 3 minutes left in the third quarter when everything fell apart. Washington’s bench crumbled, Kelly Olynyk caught fire, and the Wizards’ starters ran out of gas.
There were still reasons to be optimistic after that crushing loss. Wall and Beal had turned in their best seasons to date, and the front office made it clear that keeping the group together was a priority. The Wizards’ Big 3 was ready to carry the mantle as the most promising professional D.C. sports team and write their chapter in the D.C. sports history books. Little did we know the core would dissolve less than two years later having got no closer than they did on May 5, 2017.
Blame it on the injuries, a lack of leadership, missteps from the front office — the list goes on and on. But, rather than building on the momentum of Washington’s best season in 40 years, they took a major step back last season, followed by an even bigger step back this season. Things were so bad between the team’s underperformance and John Wall’s Achilles injury that the Wizards traded Otto Porter in a luxury-tax dodging move, just days after assuring him they’d keep him through the trade deadline.
With the Wall-Beal-Porter era now abruptly over, how will we look back at this five-year window once the dust settles? It’s tricky.
The Wizards burst onto the scene a year early. The upstart backcourt of Wall and Beal, together with proven veterans sprinkled in at key spots, slid into the 5-seed in 2014. After a surprising 4-1 series win over the heavily favored Chicago Bulls, they faced the top-seeded Indiana Pacers. Washington, a significant underdog was playing with house money. They already overachieved in winning a first round series when many thought just making the playoffs would be a success. Their two victories against the Pacers were the cherry on top of a pleasantly surprising season.
The team’s bright future lured free agent Paul Pierce to D.C. on a one-year deal that summer. His arrival gave the team a legitimacy it had lacked. Their first round sweep of the Raptors in 2015 followed with a back-and-forth series against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks solidified the Wizards as a team that would be a factor in the Eastern Conference for years to come.
The NBA was on notice — Washington was a legitimate threat in the East. However, in the Wizards’ minds, they already viewed themselves as part of the club. They were confident things would have ended differently if John Wall didn’t break his wrist in that series, and the team spent the rest of the summer trying to tell everyone about it before they could prove it. It was the summer Wall and Beal talked about being the “best backcourt in the NBA.” The Wizards were no longer the overlooked underdogs, they were the team that had to go out and back up their boasting to the league.
With Paul Pierce gone, the Wizards brought in Jared Dudley to be a positive locker room presence even though Wall and Beal felt they were ready to lead. Inconsistencies, infighting, and injuries marred the 2015-16 season and provided a dose of reality for a team that thought it had arrived.
After changing their coaching staff, and overcoming a 2-8 start to the 2016-17 season, it looked like Washington was back on its way to reasserting itself as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender. They won 49 games, John Wall turned in an All-NBA season, and Bradley Beal had a legitimate case to make the All-Star game that year.
Even after the tough Game 7 loss to Boston, the Wizards looked like they were turning a corner. They let their play do the talking (for the most part) and played with an edge they lacked the season before. That is, until after Washington was bounced from the playoffs, when Bradley Beal said “Cleveland didn’t want to see us.”
Once again, the Wizards grew tired of being the underdog and went back to trying to prove they could be more than what they had shown — the underlying theme of the era.
The Wizards coasted through the 2017-18 season losing countless games to losing teams, only to come back with wins against some of the league’s best. It was a season filled with repetitive quotes like “We didn’t bring enough energy”, “We took this team for granted”, and “Guys were stat-hunting.” Washington ended up with the 8-seed and date with the Toronto Raptors. After losing the series 4-2, Markieff Morris said: “Sometimes the better teams don’t win.”
They still didn’t learn.
The 2018-19 campaign has been a season from hell. The exciting underdog team from 2014 is a distant memory, and the front office is in panic mode hoping that they can clean up past mistakes and salvage their future with Wall in a walking boot and Porter in a Bulls uniform. The team that once dreamed of going toe-to-toe with LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals is now patting themselves on the back after two straight wins against lottery-bound teams to keep their flimsy playoff hopes alive.
This trio will go down as a core that collectively never fulfilled its potential. There are many reasons this big three never made it past the second round of the playoffs, including injuries. But ultimately, it was delusion from both the team and the front office that contributed most to Washington’s shortcomings. They convinced themselves they were close and didn‘t need to make major changes, when the reality is, they were much further away.
Back in 2013, things looked so bright for the future. But now, as the era ends, the only thing that seems clear is that there will be a murky path ahead for the next era of Wizards basketball.